Thursday, January 9, 2014

No that's not a hat...

Every time I spot the Eiffel Tower I feel slightly giddy.  Max's school is just on the other side of the Seine from the tower, about a 10 minute walk over a picturesque bridge.  When we emerge from the jam-packed Alma-Marceau metro each morning, there it is, a postcard sprung to life.  Maybe in a few weeks it'll blend into the visual white noise.  But so far, I still can't help but glancing up at it quickly, almost surreptitiously, hoping none of the natives catch me grinning.  It's like a celebrity sighting: you want to gape, but you feel a little cheap and silly gawking.

If the Eiffel Tower is the ultimate Paris cliche, then it's undoubtedly the ultimate American in Paris cliche to find it beautiful.  But it is.  I love the new(ish) light show they've put up in the years since I lived here last as a teenager, twinkling up and down its spine on the hour after dark.  No doubt everyone knows that when the Eiffel Tower first went up, there were a fair number of folks who thought that it was a blight on the Parisian landscape.  I've been doing a little research, and I like the description of it as, "a truly tragic street lamp."  I also like the idea that others defended it as "avant garde," because by now it has a vintage kitsch that's part of its romantic appeal.

Kids love the Eiffel Tower.  (That proclamation makes me think of Max's kindergarten teacher last year, who sent home a first letter to parents declaring, "Kindergarteners love baguettes," before asking for volunteers to bring baguettes and "sharp, but not too sharp cheese" to the first K potluck.  This same teacher also requested "Organic, 100% pure maple syrup" for the pancake buddy breakfast, which I brought, thinking it was a great way of getting rid of the large container I had in the fridge, only to discover that it had lily pads of mold floating in it.  She dispatched a parent to drive to the store then and there for more.  But our gourmet kindergarten teacher was right.  Kids do love baguettes.  Max has been living on them since we got here.  But I digress...)

When we first got here, our friends George and Elka came to visit with their kids, and the kids all wanted to waste no time before visiting the Eiffel Tower.  Unfortunately, the holiday lines looped endlessly (really--we couldn't find the end of the line) and even the children eventually agreed that we should call it a day when we learned that the wait would be more than four hours long.

But with the holidays finally behind us, I decided to try again with Max yesterday afternoon, launching the first of many "Adventure Wednesdays."

It turns out that all schools in France have Wednesday afternoons off.  That's right, if 2 weeks off every 6 weeks weren't enough vacances, kids here also get dismissed at noon chaque Mercredi.  I'd be lying if I said that this news initially filled me with excitement.  Max's school time is when we get our work done, and it's already a short school day (what with those crushing metro rides).  But with no alternative, I decided to try to see this as an opportunity to spend time with my kid (in Paris!) while he still wants the pleasure (that's debatable) of my company.  So: Adventure Wednesdays.  We also used the concept to help sell this whole living abroad thing to Max, when he was expressing some reluctance over leaving his familiar world, school and friends behind.  ("But you'll have Wednesday afternoons off!  We'll go on weekly adventures!")  

I've been thinking about the word "adventure" since we got here.  Not only was it the word we kept using to describe to Max what was about to shake up his little world, I also often used it when I was feeling daunted by the upheaval, telling myself that I needed an adventure, having been in the same apartment since the kid was born, in the same job, not having gone anywhere except to visit relatives.  But the true definition of "adventure" started sinking in on our 11 hour bus ride from Zurich on Christmas Eve.  Matt and I were increasingly incredulous (and sore necked) as the promised "five hour ride" stretched on and on, and all we could see were Pizza Huts and a chain restaurant named "Hippoppotame" on the European highway, which bears an eerie resemblance to the Jersey turnpike.  "We're having an adventure," Max reminded us.  And no, I don't think he was being sarcastic.

Indeed, an adventure means not being able to perfectly anticipate, plan for or control what's going to happen.  And that is what travel is about, or at least what ends up happening when you travel--for better and (sometimes) worse.  Trips put us at cross purposes with ourselves because we spend so much time trying to ensure that nothing goes wrong, doing research and making itineraries and booking tickets, but then we arrive and want to have experiences that we could not have anticipated, to meet people and do things previously unimagined.

Which a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower isn't...

That said, Max and I decided that "Adventure Wednesdays" means doing whatever seems interesting and fun.  So yesterday, after I picked him up from school, we started with a picnic of (baguette) sandwiches on the banks of the Seine.  We walked to a relatively quiet and industrial part of the river where the people who lived and worked on the tied up boats happened to take out their recycling as we were having our lunch.  Max enjoyed watching the large cans of trash get electronically carried up and robotically dumped.  I had stopped and bought 4 "macarons" at one of the recommended bakeries that we hadn't hit yet: Laduree on the Champs Elysees (a block from Max's school--hey, I had a couple of hours to kill that morning while waiting for Adventure Wednesday to begin).  I'm still trying to decide how I feel about macarons.  Everyone else seems to love them, but they remind me of raw cookie dough with a crispy shell, or a gob of frosting that's been seared on the outside.  I think I prefer a good pain au chocolat.  But duty called, and Max and I somehow managed to eat all four of them as we tried to make up our minds about whether we liked the chocolate, green apple or black licorice best.

The trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower was definitely enhanced by my six-year-old companion.  He loved the fact that the elevator was operated by some kind of enormous crank with a cable that you could watch spooling and unspooling, and also that the elevator had two tiers, one on top of the other, kind of like the Bay Bridge.  The view from the top interested him less.  We decided to come down by stairs--26 flights of them to be exact.  Then, we were going to make a trip to the Sewer Museum (ah, the fun never ceases) when we happened to pass a museum of anthropology that was having a mask making "atelier" or workshop for kids ages 6-8.  In the spirit of "Adventure Wednesday," I gave Max the choice and he picked masks over sewer pipes (though it was a toughie).

I was highly entertained by the French exchange between the woman running the workshop and one of the grandmothers who had brought 2 kids to it.  The instructor started by saying that she could see quite clearly that some of these children were not close to the minimum required 6 years of age, and as this wasn't developmentally appropriate for younger children, they were essentially being set up for failure.  Then the grandmother defended herself by saying, "I can't split myself in half, and I have to take care of both of them, so what do you propose?"  The teacher shrugged and responded, "I myself have a three year old and a six year old, and I make other arrangements sometimes, when one of them has a need that the other doesn't share."  This went on and on for a while, both sides admirably unbudging.  I don't think that this kind of exchange would have happened in the US, or it would have been much more nicey-nice, all smiles and subtext.  In any case, no one caved and the class happened and the younger child seemed to do fine.  I noticed that I was only one of two parents there on a Wednesday afternoon.  All the others were grandparents or "nounous."  That, I learned, is French for nanny.  I learned this when the instructor showed a slide of Africa and the know-it-all boy in the front (there's one in every room, regardless of culture) raised his hand to share that he once had a nounou from Madagascar, who couldn't be bothered to play with him.

I have to say that I was impressed by Max, who wanted to be part of this "atelier" and insisted on sitting on the floor with the other kids, even though he couldn't understand a word of the French presentation.  When I tried to sit beside him to translate, he told me (nicely, but unmistakably) that I could go back with the grandparents and nounous.  Have I already started to embarrass him? I wondered.  But he later told me that it wasn't that, but he wanted to try and listen and if I was translating then he didn't have a chance to guess at what the woman might be saying.  (I think I actually was embarrassing him a little, but he was trying to spare my feelings).

I knew, as we toured the museum and looked at all of these really cool wooden and ivory carvings from Africa, that Max was fantasizing about the mask he was going to carve out of wood (or possibly ivory).  And I knew, before the teacher got out the box of construction paper, that the reality wasn't going to be quite as exciting.  But he adjusted his expectations and rolled with it.  We carried his mask--the paint and glitter glue still dripping wet--on the crowded metro home, then proceeded to get lost (yet again--this city is built on circles instead of squares and I can barely manage a grid) in our own neighborhood.  The afternoon was an adventure, full of things we couldn't quite have imagined seeing or doing.  Even if we did go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

No comments: